The US Air Force has formed its first fighter air wing consisting solely of remote operator-controlled drone aircraft.
The 174th Fighter Wing is currently made up of piloted F-16 strike aircraft and the unit has just returned from duty in Iraq. Now the entire wing will be transitioned into the first wing made up of MQ-9 Reaper drones, according to the military paper Strategy Page.
The drones can fly for over 14 hours before refuelling and operate at up to 50,000 feet and carry up to three tons of ordinance. They cost a third of the price of an F-16 fighter and cost 100 times less to fuel.
The pilots will be trained on the new craft and will be able to fly the aircraft remotely without leaving the United States. Maintenance crews will still need to be shipped out to wherever the wing is deployed.
Manned fighter aircraft will be needed for the foreseeable future due to the quick response times needed for aerial combat. The Reapers will be used to stay on target over areas and launch missiles or ‘smart’ bombs where needed.
However, there may be hidden costs to the switch. Some reports are saying that the psychological effects of using such weapons will lead to a higher mental attrition rate among pilots.
“When you come in at 500-600 miles per hour, drop a 500-pound bomb and then fly away, you don’t see what happens,” Colonel Albert K. Aimar, who is commander of the 163d Reconnaissance Wing and has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, told The Boston Globe.
But when a drone fires a missile, “you watch it all the way to impact, and I mean it’s very vivid, it’s right there and personal. So it does stay in people’s minds for a long time.”
The Air Force has called in therapists, psychologists and even chaplains to try and help drone operators adjust.
“It’s bizarre, I guess,” said Lieutenant Colonel Michael Lenahan, a Predator pilot and operations director for the 196th Reconnaissance Squadron.
“It is quite different, going from potentially shooting a missile, then going to your kid’s soccer game.”